Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and too theological for popular use. Under the influence of Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, we began to see the rise of the carol written in the vernacular. The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music in itself has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas and includes some of the noblest compositions of great musicians.
Interestingly, during the British Commonwealth government under Oliver Cromwell, the British Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols as pagan and sinful. It was thought at the time that its pagan roots in the 13th century and its overly “democratic” 14th century influences made it an unsuitable activity for the general public. The Commonwealth government of 1647 mandated it so. Puritans at this time disapproved of the celebration of Christmas as well, and did not close shop on that day, but continued to work through December 25. This was true also in New England in America, where in Boston one could be fined five shillings for demonstrating Christmas spirit. During this brief interlude in English history, during which there was no monarch, such activity by the populace was to remain illegal. But this activity was prohibited only as long as the Commonwealth survived, and in 1660, when King Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public was once again able to practice the singing of Christmas carols.
No musical work is more closely associated with the Christmas season than “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It may come as something of a surprise that it had nothing to do with the Christmas season when Handel originally composed it. It was initially performed for Lent ahead of Easter, but since Handel’s death, this music is usually performed during Advent. Incidentally, the full title of the work is simply “Messiah” although it is widely but inaccurately referred to as “The Messiah”. The composer was German by birth but became a naturalized Englishman in 1726. He wrote “Messiah” in the summer of 1741 in his characteristically quick 24 days, and his first performance was the following spring in Dublin.
“Messiah” is usually attributed to having been originally done at Christ Church Cathedral, but that is only half right. The Christ Church choir performed it, along with the choir from St. Patrick’s Cathedral located three blocks away (pictured at right). But the actual performance was done at Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street half a block away from Christ Church on April 13 (pictured below.) For a while, Handel lived about a mile away, north and across the River Liffey. The music hall no longer exists, but the plaque below commemorates its location. The premiere was a benefit for prisoners in jail for debt as well as for a hospital and an infirmary. The concert raised enough money to free 142 unfortunate debtors.
It premiered in London a year later, but it was not as well received. You can read about how it was promoted by the name “A Sacred Oratorio.” Ironically, the best performance I’ve seen of Messiah was in London several years ago by the Academy of Ancient Music with authentic period-instruments.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian